Partners Persevere for the Rio Grande Despite Colossal Drought

Within the arid Intermountain West, the Rio Grande River in New Mexico is a crucial corridor for migrating, breeding and wintering birds. This passageway supports over 200,000 waterfowl, 18,000 Greater sandhill cranes and tens of thousands of other waterbirds and shorebirds annually. To date, however, more than 90% of the historic wetland and riparian habitats in the Rio Grande corridor has been lost. New Mexico, and the Rio Grande in particular, are suffering from the most extreme drought conditions in the country. The seriousness of this ongoing drought cannot be overstated; it has lasted most of the past decade. The wetland habitats along the Rio Grande and all the wildlife it supports are seriously impacted, thus making the protection, enhancement, and restoration of its remaining wetlands a national priority.

These before and after satellite images of the Rio Grande show the dramatic reduction of water on New Mexico’s largest reservoir Elephant Butte Reservoir. Water levels here are at their lowest levels in four decades, 3% of the reservoir’s capacity 

In spite of these many challenges, the conservation community has brought about significant victories due, in part, to partnerships based on a shared vision of preserving the ecological health of the Rio Grande, a vision that necessarily crosses cultural, jurisdictional, and geographic barriers.

A shining example of the partnership’s success is acquisition of funding from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) in late 2012. The $3 million in grant funds and matching contributions will protect, restore, and enhance 1,857 acres of wetlands and associated upland habitat along the Rio Grande.  This project brought together 18 diverse partners, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, New Mexico Environment Department, Santo Domingo Pueblo, Ducks Unlimited, National Wildlife Federation, New Mexico Wildlife Federation, Socorro Soil and Water Conservation District, Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust, Rio Grande Return, two local foundations, and eight private landowners.

On the heels of the NAWCA funding, another impressive victory has been the creation of the nation’s newest National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), the Valle de Oro. Located in Bernalillo County, this new refuge now protects one of the most threatened sections of the Rio Grande corridor in New Mexico. Among other noteworthy aspects, the Valle de Oro NWR is the first urban National Wildlife Refuge in the Southwest, expanding the chain of federal, state, tribal, county, and private lands that collectively provide critical wetland and riparian habitat in this vital migratory corridor.  The planned wetland and riparian habitats are critical to connecting the Monte Vista NWR and Alamosa NWR in Colorado to La Joya State Waterfowl Management Area, Sevilleta NWR, and Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico. 

The Valle de Oro NWR is being established through the acquisition of the 570-acre Prices’ Dairy farm – the largest undeveloped historic Rio Grande wetland basin left in Bernalillo County. One key aspect of this refuge is that Valle de Oro comes with sufficient senior water rights to support the eventual enhancement and restoration of these agricultural lands back into productive wetlands. Additionally, its “backyard” location to nearly half of New Mexico’s population in Albuquerque presents a unique opportunity to provide a place for people to connect with and learn about the natural world and its wildlife. According to the Trust for Public Land in New Mexico, it will provide important close-to-home outdoor recreation and environmental education opportunities.

In spite of the circumstances brought by climate change and severe drought conditions, the birds that bottleneck along the Rio Grande River will continue to find food and shelter in a chain of productive private and public wetlands and associated grasslands thanks to the inspiration and work of a dedicated group of conservation partners.


Read more articles in the Fall 2013 issue of the Conservation Roundup: 

The Shorebird Character of the Intermountain West

By Brad A. Andres, National Coordinator, U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Blanca Wetlands: The Importance of Science-based Management When Resources Run Dry

By Hannah J. Ryan, IWJV Communications Specialist 

Pond It and Plug It: Restoring Wet Meadows in Northern California

By Jim Stutzman, IWJV Habitat Delivery Specialist

Farm Bill Conservation Programs Take Root in the Palouse

By Kurt Merg, Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, and Don Larsen, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife